Editor’s Pick
JULY 5, 2011 8:59AM

Being Average

Rate: 54 Flag

For Thoreau, social conformity creates a dull and deadening averaging tendency.  He ends Walden with a parable about a “beautiful bug” that, having been deposited as an egg some sixty years previous in an apple tree, gnaws its way out of the kitchen table built from the wood of that tree.  “Who knows,” Thoreau asks, “what beautiful and winged life . . . may unexpectedly come forth . . . to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!”  For Thoreau, we capitulate to being average; it is not our destiny.

 

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As a young man, I wanted to zig-zag, to tack, to feint and juke, rather than straighten to the average tendency.  I wanted to be one of those fireworks that spins wildly, shooting off sparks and bursting into a mad profusion of clamor and color.  I was determined to be one of the chosen, one of the elect, polymathic, an outlier, off the chart, gauge-breaking, one of a kind.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

In my last year of Little League baseball, I lost only one game as a pitcher and led the league in home runs.  In my first year of American Legion baseball, I won only one game and hit no home runs.  Fifteen years ago, in a slow-pitch softball league, I had no hits.  I never hit the ball out of the infield.  My career in slow-pitch softball was unsullied by success.

 

*     *     *     *     *   

 

The word “average” is taken to mean normal, ordinary, in the middle, what most things are.  As an arithmetic mean, it denotes the sum of items divided by the number of items.  It is not to be confused with “median,” the middle number in an ordered sequence, nor with “mode,” the most frequently occurring number.  In its common usage, “average” means all three; it means being meaned, medianed, and moded

 

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Moby Dick is now considered an extraordinary novel, above average’s above average, a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest ever written.  Pure lyricism spills from Melville’s pen.  The novel tells a dark truth about human nature and the universe, a universe Ahab defies.  It explores Miltonic themes of fate and free will. It is celebrated for its democratic spirit.  Most book reviewers at the time praised it for its imaginative sweep.  Readers, however, were unimpressed; the novel did not sell. “Dollars damn me,” he told his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.  He couldn’t write what he wanted to write and make a living.  He turned to poetry and lived out his years, forgotten except as a less than average American writer, as a tax collector in New York.  His reputation underwent a revival beginning with his centennial in 1919, and by the mid-1930s he had been catapulted from the rank of a lesser writer to the pantheon of  literary immortals, a tax-collecting Matthew who finally received his beatific summons.

 

 *     *     *     *     *

 

Rory Mcllroy, a 22 year-old Irishman, won the 2011 U.S. Open with a record-setting score of 16 under par, surpassing the previous record of 12 under par set by Tiger Woods in 2000.  Mcllroy’s score will be bettered and he will become a footnoted second.  That bettered score will be bettered yet again, and again, and Mcllroy’s score will come to seem customary, middling, average. 

 

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Some interesting averages: The average weight for U.S. males is 191 pounds; for women, 140 pounds.  Both men and women use 16,000 words per day; their vocabulary averages 5 to 6 thousand words.  They repeat themselves a lot.  On average Americans laugh 13 times per day, eat 35,000 cookies in a lifetime, have 1,460 dreams per year, eat 18 acres of pizza per day, and consumes 3.1 cups of coffee per day.  On average, a full moon occurs every 29.5 days; a blue moon, two full moons in one month, occurs once every 2.5 years.  Once in a blue moon I dream of laughingly eating a cookie-topped pizza and washing it down with Starbuck’s Venetian Robusto.  With a Hersheys Milk Chocolate Bar with Almonds on the side.  It averages 6 whole almonds per 52 gram (1.8 ounce) bar.

 

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The average age for getting bifocals is 40.  I got bifocals at 40.

 

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The average measures a tendency toward centralization, but not everything has a central tendency.  What is the central tendency of dogs?  Of a dewed, sun-dappled meadow?  Of ice cream? Of home and poetry and courage and mirth and dignity and the little shard of mystery we are? 

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

No one wants to be average.  No one wants to appear ordinary to themselves, or to others.  We almost always overestimate our knowledge, our common sense, our practicality.  We almost always consider ourselves more original, more distinctive than we are.  We set our lives to the meter of I-am-ic.  We like to think of our lives as a bit of guerilla theater.  What we fear is invisibility, a life unacknowledged, unheralded, ciphered, a cursive stroke written in disappearing ink.  We fear cloaking conformity. To be average is a shackling littleness we desperately seek to leave behind.  Average is tyrannous.  The mean is mean.

 

 *     *     *     *     *

 

In 2010, the Scream Awards, given to movies in the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres, had 32 categories, including one for the best mutilation scene.  In his book Everyone’s a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Culture, University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best introduces the term “status affluence,” a recent phenomenon exemplified by the proliferation of awards and the emergence of subcultures and lifestyle clusters where group identity is often consolidated by handing out or receiving awards.  We are rapidly becoming average at being above average.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The last line of Middlemarch, referring to the idealistic Dorothea: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

At my last wellness screening, everything—blood pressure, BMI, HDL and LDLcholesterol, triglycerides—checked out average, within the normal range.  Here, average is good.  My weight is below, well below, the 190 pound average for males.  Below average is considered bad, but in this case it is probably good.  I drink more, much more, coffee than the 3.1 cups per day average.  Above average is good, but in this case it is probably bad.  “Average” is a slippery word, never definitive, always contingent on circumstance.  There is always a slippage between public and private meaning, what the world knows and what we know.  Too often we take the world’s word for it.

 

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To be average means to have been measured against something else.  Average is a relational concept.  It has the seductive, come-hither appeal of metrics.  I’d like to think individual subjectivities are unaverageable, but even personally chosen measures of self-assessments are based on criteria we have internalized from the cultural milieu.  Who is the “I” that measures?  That is being measured?  Are we available to ourselves as ourselves?

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture Atlas Slave depicts a half completed human figure that seemingly strains to break free and emerge from, to transcend, the block of marble that contains it.  Thoreau’s apple-tree bug has a precedent.  It is an old idea.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

A new genetic paradigm, called epigenetics, is currently taking shape in biology.  It revises the idea that DNA is deterministic, that it acts as a foreordained blueprint, that our genome shapes who we will be.  DNA is itself shaped by the cells that contain it.  Our cells, it turns out, are affected by a variety of environmental factors, even by our social networks, and these factors cause chemicals to attach to the gene which control its expression.  Life is creative, not foreordained; ongoing, not given; a sculpture in process, in transit, mustering itself.  We are, beyond measure, beyond average.  We are our own average.

 

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Far above average writing here. Much for thought. Brings Pirsig's book that sits near me to mind.
I am average but different.. jerry your words are always better than the average bear..
:)
Hope you had a great 4th
HUGGGGGGGGGG
I'd say this post is WAY above "average"
(looks above at comments)

one below average ... one above average ... two average

[R]
What a terrific post. ~r
You surely covered all the bases of average here.
This is such a well written and delightful post,
well above average,
relative to what
I guess just my experience of reading posts
I wonder sometimes
at my friends who strive for enlightenment
all above average folks
who are all strive to be above average
yet they all believe
that when they achieve their life goal
of ascending into the place
where enlightened folk go
that they will be part of the whole
absorbed into the universal oneness
will they be average then
or will there be no average
just "Its all good"
rated with love
Such Hope at the end! I like to imagine my DNA being altered as I write. There has to be hope for transformation altho I dont see true transformation very often. Life seems to average out and titrate. Going for the happy middle. Compromising. Seeking peace. Rage Rage against that and show some spark of originality. "You were born an original, don't die a copy." So many inspiring thoughts here. Thanks.
average compared to a dog....then I am average, the dog superior
I was an above average baseball player, like yourself. But I went a different way. I am not your average person. I have not lived the average life. I'n not saying I lived a better or above average life, but it sure wasn't average. If it was, there would be a lot less people alive and the ones that lived would be carrying some hell of a lot of scars. I sometimes wish I would have been average. But it has been exciting, to say the least!
As you said, average is a measurement against something else. Who needs it? An above average study and writing to be sure. The writer? All of it far exceeds the sum of its totals.
I like being average and ordinary, as long as I can do the best I can personally do I'm content. I don't understand why we're supposed to be better than someone else at something because it feels like I have to be like someone else. I don't enjoy beating someone else and it doesn't bother me to be beaten at something. I prefer the doing to the achieving, maybe I didn't get the competitive gene.

I don't want to conform or be measured against other people and comparing others takes the joy out of everything. It's irritates me that I'm supposed to do this or that, to be like this one or that one. Often it feels like people are trying to shove me into boxes. I want to be myself and other people to be themselves, maybe I'm just lazy. I really like what you said and I love your last sentence.
What counts is how you are measured by your family. In their eyes I am sure you are not average at all. Nicely done Jerry. The first time you were not in my spam box also!
You quote George Eliot, you get my rating. I have rated this for far, far more than only that, however. This was a grand experiment.
As an easay, this post is average. It contains the essentials to make it an essay: logos, ethos, pathos, and a hint of bathos ( but no bathhouses). As an attempt to be above average it is sublime. R
As an easay, this post is average. It contains the essentials to make it an essay: logos, ethos, pathos, and a hint of bathos ( but no bathhouses). As an attempt to be above average it is sublime. R
This post is far from average and in fact does a lovely job of repositioning "average" to work in tandem with possibility
A provocatively ambitious rendering, JD --- a whale's worth of protein, damn.

Dostoevsky had some of this:
'like all young men he thought himself unique .... '
Fascinating post, Jerry, and as many have alread said, - far above average!
Struggling with above-average intent to come up with a comment that won't seem to be striving for above-average effect, yet reading other comments here my ambition wanes and I settle reluctantly for above-average frustration.
Your wondeful post is a prime example of why I stay with Open salon.
Enjoyed this essay very much. This was my favorite part--"a cursive stroke written in disappearing ink." That is a flash of brilliance. I looked at that phrase with admiration and after reflection came to the conclusion that, for me, I am satisfied with being that. A stroke in time that will disappear. I have no problem with being average. There is no danger there for me or anyone. However, danger does lurk in the common thinking that individuals are somehow unique. I hate unique and if the concept could be made into a human form would relish dropping it with a mean left hook followed by a firm right cross. The concept of average is comforting to this common snowflake falling through the cosmos with billions of other souls. Thanks for sharing another sterling piece and for free- which was a great deal.

Written by an average blogging enthusiast on a very average blogging site rotating on an average speck of materials whose average beings are warmed by an average-sized star.
I really loved this piece. The idea of average is one I really took for granted before this. We do all struggle against the norm when wanting desperately to accomplish something in our lifetime. For me that is becoming a writer after being an artist and mother.
I agree that we do all hold ourselves up to a standard and want to exceed it. I love that you bring up the idea of questioning it whether it is from our own overblown egos or someone else's point of view. I love how you ended your essay, with a positive and hopeful conclusion.
Excellent!!
You may be average, but at least you are not ordinary. I have reflected on this notion quite a lot and you put it so eloquently and simply--scientific elegance not simpleton simple.
"Of ice cream? Of home and poetry and courage and mirth and dignity and the little shard of mystery we are? "

I loved this essay. I had too many favorite lines, but the one that hung in the air suspended is the juxtaposition of common experience "ice cream" linked with the mystical "Of home and poetry and courage and mirth and dignity and little shard of mystery we are?"

Kind of hurts that you reflected this and placed a question mark. I wish we could end startling thoughts and unexpected prose with an infinity mark to denote that what has been said is known to the author to be his original take on many fields of study stretching back to when storytelling was the basis for "learning."

Me. I'd end my favorite line with an infinity mark.

Due. You are due some notice, but I hope your own notice of you is what you value more.

Do write more. I will read more of what you write.

Finally, did you ever read the literary magazine Story? I used to read it for about eight years. Short stories are more difficult than essays because of the fiction, and how to tell a tale worth a few words. Do you dabble in fiction?

Annie Shay
While you argue the "adverse" (nobody wants to be average) you don't specify what is basically the foundation of the Western tradition certainly since the Reformation, which is individualism, and the teological approach to it, which was certainly evident in Thoreau and Melville and all the American authors who built their work on the Protestant ethic.

It's very hard to get away from if you want to give a full appraisal. An interesting stat I've heard is that only ten per cent of the population is NOT influenced by status as the primary indicator of character. How else to explain the long history of "Melvilles" throughout literature and art, and the thousands who never recieve their due because they were too far from the norm when they appeared. It's that ten per cent we rely upon to move the consensus forward in every field.
Just an extraordinary take on an ordinary topic rrrrrrrrrr
I recently read Moby Dick on the recommendation of an OS friend. "Pure lyricism spills from Melville's pen" is SO right! The emotional reaction I had to reading it took me very much by surprise. A book that I had always thought of as "a boy's book". I think it could be easy for many to begin, find it difficult to understand and give up. But it is worth persistence. A real surprise ... and a masterpiece indeed!

This post is somewhat of a wonderful little mini-masterpiece too, Jerry. Well done!
You've given the concept of average such cachet in this elegant, informative, whimsical piece.
"We set our lives to the meter of I-am-ic. We like to think of our lives as a bit of guerilla theater. What we fear is invisibility, a life unacknowledged, unheralded, ciphered, a cursive stroke written in disappearing ink."
As matter, we want to matter. (r)
Wonderfully lyrical rumination on both the curse and blessing of being average, Jerry. It reminded me of the Garrison Keillor quote: "Welcome to Lake Wobegon where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." Yet if everyone's special then no one is. I suppose it's human nature to want to distinguish ourselves in some way - but by doing so we also run the risk of missing the beauty in the "normal, ordinary, in the middle, what most things are." So what's the ideal way for our fragile little human egos to put things in perspective? I like the way you sum it up: "We are our own average."
Is "extraordinary" average yet? If not, than you have exceeded your estimation of yourself as being 'only' average because this is extraordinary. If it is, than being average is an extraordinary blessing. Either way, you win:)
When he had finished his Violin Concerto, Tchaikowsky, not being a violinist, was informed by many who were that it was technically impossible to play. He managed to find someone who did learn to play it and, now, it is a required part of any professional violinist's repertoire.
s brilliant and compellingly-written a piece as i have seen here, jerry thank you so much for this R.
Love your conclusion. Last year in the Ojibway teaching lodge a man shared something that has stayed with me all year...he read a book called "Seven Mysteries of Life" by Guy Murchie and called up the author to ask him some questions (years and years ago). One of them was a statement that in terms of probability none of us should be here. Statistically each one of us is a miracle...as we trace our ancestry back each one of them had to survive long enough to reproduce. And survival wasn't easy. Your intriguing and well written post made me think of that. I've been working on an essay about how no one I know considers themselves normal. I think I'll let it rest. Yours is better.
Well done.

I'd rather be terrible than average.

So far, so good.
"We set our lives to the meter of I-am-ic" You are so exceedingly above average when it comes to the written word.

Lezlie
Thanks Jerry. "Ordinary " and "Average" have always been dirty words. It's nice to know I'm not alone, but in sharing this fear/determination with others only validates the fact that I am probably, naturally Average.
Such a wonderful and wide-ranging essay! I especially like "My career in slow-pitch softball was unsullied by success." You just gave me a very pleasant, melodious way to explain large swaths of my life...thanks for that. :)
Some averages are desirable. I wish I'd been an average softball hitter; ice skater; dancer; sketcher. And I wish I had only an average number of pre-skin cancers; car accidents; temper flare-ups.

Alberto Moravia's fine 1951 novel "The Conformist" concerns a man who destroys himself in the pursuit of being average.
Don't forget Roman Hruska, Senator of the Mediocre.
I'm late to you post, Jerry, but better late than to have missed it altogether. I like the contrasts and the views you've expressed here and especially these two last sentences: "Life is creative, not foreordained; ongoing, not given; a sculpture in process, in transit, mustering itself. We are, beyond measure, beyond average. We are our own average."
♥R
Jerry an amazingly rich post, I learned a lot.

I just want to say that reading this reminded me of wanting O so wanting all through elementary school, 1st grade through 8th to be average. No idea why this notion so appealed but it did. An average student, and average human, average was my aim.

I outgrew this only much later in college when I became a great student and then in my twenties when I was both unusually pretty and smart. Several called me a genius. But now in my 60's I again appreciate average. I don't know if I am, suspect I am not, but there is something in the soul that does not want to be seen as special. There is something in the ego that once curtailed knows that average is good for a whole lot of things. Just my association. Wendy
Jerry an amazingly rich post, I learned a lot.

I just want to say that reading this reminded me of wanting O so wanting all through elementary school, 1st grade through 8th to be average. No idea why this notion so appealed but it did. An average student, and average human, average was my aim.

I outgrew this only much later in college when I became a great student and then in my twenties when I was both unusually pretty and smart. Several called me a genius. But now in my 60's I again appreciate average. I don't know if I am, suspect I am not, but there is something in the soul that does not want to be seen as special. There is something in the ego that once curtailed knows that average is good for a whole lot of things. Just my association. Wendy r
as paradigms go, epigenetics sounds excellent.
we are all preprogrammed with certain limits within which
we can achieve limitless freedom.
a snail is free in his snale-i-ness,
and an average man or woman is
slacking.

my brilliant paradoxical answer to this problem
is to dwell simultaneously in below average in many categories
and above, i hope, in the ones i give a damn about.
average is something i have zero use or tolerance for.
when i am below average, i suffer shame and jealousy.
when i am above, i suffer narcissism and ennui and
serious spiritual pride.

spiritually we=equal. i firmly believe this.
spirit is simply freedom-in-action.
if your action is baseball, well then, at least
you were a free whiffer, ha...

your post was a fine above average study of being average.
You're right, nobody wants to be average. But, what they (we) want to avoid at all costs is for their (our) kids to be average.
A lot of "averages" to be pondered here. Very enjoyable reading. And then there are those fantasy sub-average folks like Forrest Gump who prosper while the above-average around him fail. Who's to stop us average folks from doing the same?
"the little shard of mystery we are"

I am going to quote you here and not comment at all. It would seem absurd, after such beauty, to even try.
"What we fear is invisibility, a life unacknowledged, unheralded, ciphered, a cursive stroke written in disappearing ink. We fear cloaking conformity." Thus, we blog. (And I loved "the mean is mean.")

Carefully constructed and delightfully expressed--an above-average work (which is par for you on this particular course).
Decidedly above average, Jerry. This was especially well played:  "What we fear is invisibility, a life unacknowledged, unheralded, ciphered, a cursive stroke written in disappearing ink.  We fear cloaking conformity. To be average is a shackling littleness we desperately seek to leave behind.  Average is tyrannous.  The mean is mean."
This was a gift in both form and substance. "We like to think of our lives as a bit of guerilla theater." Yes. I do. I fight against anything that seems "average" in terms of lifestyle, preference, even clothes and eyeglasses. It is, as you explain so well, all relative though - I do want to be "below average" in "bad things like cholesterol, above in things like SAT scores. This was an above average post that will not soon be eclipsed in my memory. Not in a blue moon.
this piece had a great rhythm and pace to it...i enjoyed the ride--much better than 'average'...rated
OK if I grade this essay?
A. But not for average.